In 1979 Mick Namarari was described by Geoff Bardon
as ‘a man with, a genial, happy nature who often made presents to his
friends.’ Bardon also claimed that Mick was the sort of man who would
not tell you about himself easily: he was a man of slight and
purposeful conversation ... he was a man unto himself. He was also one
of the greatest painters Australia has produced.
Mick Namarari was born at Marnpie (Bronzewing Pigeon) Rockhole in
the sandhills country west-south-west of Alice Springs about 1926. His
name is a corruption of MacNamara. During the 1930’s he worked for a
man known as ‘Billy the Bunyip MacNamara’ on Tempe Downs and the
Aboriginal pronunciation of the boss’s name led to ‘Mick ... Namarari’.
Following a tragedy when both his parents were killed, Mick’s remaining
family group camped near Putari Springs, south-west of Mt Leibig. They
were encountered there by the anthropologist Norman B Tindale
(1900-1995) in 1932.
Around this time, when Mick was only five or six years old the family
led a traditional, nomadic existence. One consequence was that prior
to 1932 he had never seen a white man. During the decade of the ‘40’s,
the family stayed around the Haasts Bluff/Hermannsburg area. Through
this period as Mick grew to manhood he was initiated at Areyonga and,
like so many others of his generation, worked as a stockman on various
stations, including Tempe Downs. He learned his dreamings, songs and
ceremonies from his Pitubi elders throughout this period and came to a
close and mature relationship with his own country.
By the time that Geoffrey Bardon arrived in Papunya, in 1971, Mick
was serving on the Papunya Council. One of his fellow councillors at
that time was the now equally famous Johnny Warangkula Tjupurulla and
it was Bardon who enticed both of these men to begin painting. Mick had
displayed a keen interest in painting and accepted the unexpected
oppotunity to follow that path at Papunya.
He remembered painting on anything that became available and like
other members of the growing ‘painting mob’ he painted on masonite,
pulp board, paper ... indeed anything at all. It was not until Peter
Fannin took over as advisor from Geoff Bardon that canvas was
introduced. The earliest painters at Papunya had used ochres which were
soon to be replaced by acrylic paints.
During these early years, Mick traveled to Sydney with Geoffrey
Bardon for the making of Geoffrey's film, ‘Mick and The Moon’ (1979)
which is specifically about the artist and his work.
Aiming to avoid the fearful conditions which had developed in the
government settlement proper he moved his family, during the decade
after 1972, into the foothills of the Papunya Mountains at a place
named Blackwater. The family was one of the few which stayed on in
Papunya years after so many other Pintubi groups had moved back to
Kintore and their homelands near the Western Australia border.
Nevertheless the family moved a number of times between Papunya,
Blackwater, Kungjatunti and finally to his traditional lands,
Wulungurru, near Kintore.
He painted prolifically during the first half of the 1980’s and
travelled to Sydney in August 1981 for an important early exhibition of
Central Desert Paintings, staged at Syd's, in Taylor Square, Sydney.
This was a new venue set up by cultural philanthropist, Elaine
Townsend, with a view to staging art exhibitions, poetry and musical
recitals and theatrical performances. Mick travelled to Sydney with
noted painters Nosepeg Tjupurrula and Tutama. It was noted at the time
that Mick Namarari had been to Sydney twice before and had also
travelled to New Guinea and New Zealand to promote his painting. Tutama
on the other hand, had never been to Sydney before and remembers that
he was amused by the ‘cheeky bugger’ elevator doors which closed before
him in a city building. He felt he was being ‘eaten up’. The
exhibition, titled ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ opened on the 3rd of September
and ran for only three days. It was, nevertheless, an historic moment
in the marketing and exposure of desert art in Sydney. This was the
first time that work by Nosepeg Tjupurrula and Tutama had been
exhibited in Sydney although audiences in France, Germany, England and
New Zealand had seen their paintings by this time!
Mick Namarari and his fellow painters, looked much more relaxed and
self-assured in our city environment than one imagines a white man
would be if transplanted to their rugged outback existence. They were
gentle and cheerful in manner and distinctly individual in dress,
sporting collectively, two scarves, a French beret, a stockman’s hat
and two pairs of modern running shoes. None of the trio was
overwhelmed by the ‘big city’.
Mick later joined his countrymen and women at Kintore. Here, it was
claimed that, ‘the Pintubi created a community where they could control
the balance between white values and traditional culture.’ He set up
an outstation at Nyunmanu to the south-east of the settlement towards
Marnpi. Later Mick lived at Njutulnya outstation with his second wife
Elizabeth and their children, Angelina, Peter and Farran. Mick's
Dreamings, and therefore his paintings, were many and various but the
main stories were Kangaroo, Dingo, Water, Mingatjurra (Wild Bandicoot)
and Moon dreamings. He also had the right to paint about Dancing Women,
Tingari Travelling Men, Naughty Boys, Mallee-fowl, Wren and Crow. Like
so many other men of his race Mick believed that it was a man’s duty to
paint his dreamings. It has been said of Mick that, ‘his ability to
focus on a particular incident of association with these key stories
gave him innumerable, striking variations on any one myth’.
Indeed in 1994 Mick was described as, ‘certainly one of Australia’s
most important living painters. That was four years before his death
and it was appropriate, timely and very pleasing to see such
recognition come to him. At the time of his death, Wally Caruana,
curator of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art at the National
Gallery of Australia, Canberra claimed about Mick that, He was a
wonderful exponent of making art based on ancient traditions respond
with a contemporary edge. He was not just a great Aboriginal artist,
but a great Australian artist.
Caruana was not the only commentator to respond with accolades of
that type. Chris Hodges, proprietor of the Utopia Gallery in Sydney
noted the pioneering work of the Papunya Tula artists, such as Mick,
and suggested that they had ‘forged the way for many other Aboriginal
artists across Australia’. Hodges added that, ‘His art touched a chord
with the wider community and his influence reached well beyond his
remote desert home.’ Furthermore it was noted that Mick’s, ‘charm lay
in the quiet unassuming ease with which he carried himself, and his
paintings came with that same ease.’
The notion of Mick Namarai’s art reaching well beyond the desert
where he lived and into a much wider world is complimentary to and
supportive of the main theme of this book. His death in fact was a
major reason why this research and work is being undertaken right now.
As an historian it would be innapropriate for me to sit by and watch
such a significant generation of artists pass away. Mick, and
especially those central desert artists who live with us into the next
century must have their work recorded and evaluated now. A number fine examples of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s work may be
seen in the collections of Jinta Desert Art in Sydney and the
Aboriginal Desert Art Gallery Alice Springs. The National Gallery of
Australia holds nine of his paintings.
The prestigious National Aboriginal Art Award was won by Mick in 1991
with his painting ‘Bandicoot Dreaming’. From 1992 until the time of his
death in August 1998, he continued to explore new directions. He was
one of the painters who exemplified the notion that Aboriginal painting
was not static but allowed the artist free reign to experiment, change
and adapt. Accordingly his paintings, displaying subtle but powerful
images, have remained fresh and exciting after twenty eight years of